AZUSA, Calif. – As far as first impressions go, this one was – impressive.
Head coach T.J. Hardeman and a host of new Cougars made a successful debut as the NAIA’s No. 16-ranked Azusa Pacific rallied from 11 down to beat No. 12 Lewis-Clark State College, 64-57, in the Cougars’ season-opener in the Felix Event Center Friday afternoon.
Senior guard Sarah Leathers scored a game-high 14 points, including 11 in the second half to lead the Cougars back. All-GSAC forward Abby Johnson added 12 points and a game-high 12 rebounds to aid the Cougar cause. However, it was the play of the Cougar bench, and in particular 4 newcomers, which proved to be the difference, out-scoring the Warrior bench, 32-11.
Sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia, who has sat at the end of bench for 2 years in order to complete eligibility requirements, made the most of her long-awaited collegiate unveiling, tallying 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting while giving Azusa Pacific control of the play around the basket.
Freshman guard C.J. Hill also stepped into the spotlight, tallying 13 points off the bench to go along with 3 assists and a pair of steals.
“Kristie and C.J. came in and just played awesome,” said Hardeman. “They really helped us get over the first-game jitters that obviously affected us early on.”
L-C State, which arrived in Azusa having already played 2 games this season, looked very much like it had already worked out the early-season kinks that teams typically experience, jumping on the Cougars in the opening minutes by scoring 14 of the game’s first 18 points. The Warriors used a variety of presses and pressure defense to rattle the Cougars into 7 early turnovers and a paltry 5-for-19 (.263) shooting out of the gate. As a result, LCSC assumed a 21-10 lead midway through the first half.
“L-C State camouflaged their defense,” said Hardeman. “It was zone and then kind of mannish. It took us a while to settle down and run some certain things against it that would work.”
Enter Hill into the game, and the Cougars began a slow and methodical comeback. The 5-foot-4 guard sparked an 18-6 Cougar run by knocking down her first collegiate trey. Johnson followed with her own rare trey from the top of the arc, and by the time Leathers buried her first 3-pointer of the season, Azusa Pacific was back in business, trailing only 27-25 with 4-and-a-half minute left in the first half. Haal’ufia completed the comeback by rebounding her own missed free throw and then converting a lay-up to give Azusa Pacific a short-lived 28-27 lead. Despite settling for a 31-30 halftime deficit, Azusa Pacific had nonetheless survived 14 first-half turnovers and had mastered the Warrior press by making 8 of its final 10 shots of the half.
“At halftime it was unbelievable that we were down only 1 having played as bad as we did,” said Hardeman. “We knew we had to establish our post game, that they would have trouble defending it. If it was going to be a perimeter shooting game, we would be in trouble, but we did a good job of getting the ball to Abby and Kristie and establishing the low post.”
Lewis-Clark State controlled play through the first 10 minutes of the second half, holding a 47-43 advantage with 9:33 left in the game. However, like they had in the first half, the Warriors seemingly ran out of gas playing its up-tempo defense, and as a result the Cougars, and in particular Leathers, blistered L-C State from the perimeter. Leathers hit back-to-back treys to give Azusa Pacific a 51-47 lead with 8 minutes left, and tired set of Warriors now found themselves in a desperate chase that unknowingly to them ended with 6:04 left in the game when Sadie Short converted the Warriors’ last meaningful jumper of the game.
“Our defense tonight was really encouraging to me,” said Leathers. “There was a stretch late in the game where we messed up on offense like 10 times but I looked up and realized that they had scored only 2 points in that time.”
From there, Hill and her teammates ran away from L-C State with a 9-0 run that turned a 55-54 Cougar lead into a game-clinching 64-54 advantage with 20 second left.
Hill scored 8 points in the final 6-and-a-half minutes, converting all 6 of her free throw attempts in the process while coming up with a key steal with 2 minutes to play.
Leathers did a fine job handling the leather all night. Along with her 14 points, she added 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals to her resume.
L-C State, which came in having won 58 of its past 68 games, was paced by Sadie Short’s 11 points and 6 rebounds. However, it was the aggressive play of Breianna Gaines and her 10 points that sparked the Warrior offense through the night. However, she picked up 2 fouls in less than in a minute and exited the game with her fifth with 6:23 remaining. Not so ironically, the Warriors made just 2 field goals the rest of the way. Jade Fullbright added 9 points and picked up 6 of the Warriors’ whopping 17 steals.
Azusa Pacific is now 1-0 on the season while Lewis-Clark State falls to 2-1.